Station Island – the Sequence VIII

If the aim of his Lough Derg pilgrimage was for Heaney to chastise his soul then he is not about to spare himself. The mood has changed: the soothing clear water of VII is replaced by the growing turbulence of some Wagnerian overture.

The whole scene is chiaroscuro – gathering storm – black water granite airy space above, white waves furrows snowcapped at lake level in a strengthening wind.

A black and white omen of both good and evil (magpie) struggles (staggers) to cope with the conditions, preparing the way for two black-and-white revenant figures, both dead, who will present themselves to the pilgrim.

Lost in thought (staring) in the centre of the kneeling ‘station’ (hard mouth of St Brigid’s Bed) Heaney- pilgrim awakens to another ghostly presence – friend and archaeologist Tom Delaney who died of tuberculosis aged 32.

Heaney recognises Tom’s facial profile (very like himself … scribe’s face), his manner (straight-lipped smile), his equal surprise at seeing Heaney (pretence of amazement), and his unkempt appearance (wing of woodkerne’s hair) resembling a sixteenth century Irish forest dweller.

His unshaven blackened stubble and the dark weather herald the sick man’s spasm (unspoken pain) before their encounter is interrupted by the passage of a devotee (pilgrim bent and whispering on his rounds).

  • furrows: a ploughing analogy applied to the troughs of the waves;
  • granite: an extremely hard, dark coloured rock;
  • magpie: aggressive long-tailed black and white crow, omen of good and bad so duality;
  • basilica: church with special Catholic privileges; Lough Derg is a case in point;
  • stagger: walk unsteadily;
  • stare: gaze intently:
  • mouth: entrance (connotations of swallow);
  • St Brigid’s Bed: a pilgrim ‘station’ on the island dedicated to Ireland’s second patron saints (after St Patrick to whom the basilica is dedicated);
  • hub: central point;
  • archaeology: human history studied via site excavation and analysis of artefacts discovered;
  • Thomas Delaney (1947 – 1979): born in Dublin, educated at Blackrock College and University College, Dublin. His excavation work at Carrickfergus earned him a place as one of the country’s leading archaeologists. He was the only Irish member of the British Archaeological Society. At the time of his death he was head of the Department of Medieval Archaeology at the Queen’s University, Belfast;
  • scribe: reference to the painstaking medieval clerics who in their monasteries made careful handwritten copies of manuscripts, preserving them for posterity;
  • straight-lipped smile: a juxtaposition of opposites Heaney’s phrase suggests impassiveness within the smile of the dead friend;
  • woodkerne: wood-dwelling Irish rebel of old;
  • fan down: form a fringe;
  • brow: forehead;
  • stubble: shortstiff hairs on an unshaven chin;
  • bent: stooping, bowing in reverence
  • rounds: journey from one destination to the next:

Heaney confesses contrition for his paltry contribution to what was to be their final meeting beside Delaney’s intensive-care bed. He became distracted by the flickering lights of the heart-monitor that pulled no punches as to the seriousness of the condition (stripped things naked). His perpetual repartee and wisecracks were overtaken by the display screen (my banter failed too early) and his parting feelings (guilty and empty, feeling I had said nothing) fell far short (broken covenants failed obligation) of what a dying friend deserved. Did the manner of their final moments, the poet wonders, bring Tom any comfort (nothing to appease?).

Delaney’s response confirms the emptiness of his and Heaney’s last moments together (Nothing at all). Here now his shade kneels inside St Brigid’s Bed (familiar stone), life ebbing away (half-numbed), saved from facing imminent death alone by the chance appearance of the poet-pilgrim-friend and an unexpected invitation, alive and yet post mortem, to give his side.

Delaney devoted himself to his calling (still-faced archaeology), responding positively to sour carved faces (small crab-apple physiognomies) of Celtic origin (high crosses) and the more sophisticated statuary (carved heads) of later Christian places of worship (abbeys). His calling explained his fortitude (dig in, … hard place), his fastidious excavation (picking through) of entrenched attitudes (muck of bigotry under the walls) and evidence of conflict (shards and Williamite cannon balls) that characterised more than three hundred years of Irish history.

He and the poet learnt in friendship to play down memory of Ireland’s unhappy history (turned to banter too).

Delaney regrets openly that untimely death cut short their relationship (but dead at thirty-two!) questions the randomness of individual fates that left Heaney intact (lucky poet) and deprived the archaeologist (what passed me by) of what life still held in store (seemed deserved and promised).

  • ‘Delaney’s response …’: I am indebted to Andrew Grant for drawing my attention to a poor commentary in a previous version. Andrew pointed out quite rightly that that Delaney was responding to the poet’s question in the last couplet of the second section. Andrew went on to set out his reading of the narrative: In life, (Delaney) had lost himself in his academic world, turning away from the “muck of bigotry” to find solace in “familiar stone”, a solitary profession that had half-numbed him and prepared him to face death alone. He questions ruefully why Heaney was so lucky, while his own life expired at thirty two, denying him “what seemed deserved and promised”. The tone is more regretful than accusatory and even seems to acknowledge a degree of complicity in turning serious matters to banter and responsibility for their not having seen more of each other. His magnanimity provokes the poet’s self- recrimination in the next section (AG comment to DF).
  • screen: visual display of medical details;
  • pulse: the throb of the heartbeat as detected by medical equipment;
  • banter: easy, familiar conversation that includes exchange of personal comments;
  • covenant: the notion of agreements and promises echoing God’s arrangements with Man from the Bible;
  • obligation: to the general idea of ‘duty’ one may add the notion of a ‘binding religious pledge’;
  • crab-apple: the most bitter apple; crabbed: irritable, fractious;
  • physiognomy: facial features and expressions indicative of underlying character;
  • abbey: place inhabited by a community of monks or nuns;
  • high cross: tall stone cross on a pedestal, largely decorated with designs or figures
  • dig in: excavate, persist;
  • muck: dirt, grime;
  • bigotry: intolerance of other beliefs;
  • shards: from OE, the sharp fragments, splinters of pottery, glass;
  • Williamite: (opposite to Jacobite ) reference to protestant William III (also known as William of Orange, nicknamed ‘King Billy’ in Northern Ireland) who defeated Catholic Jacobite forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, still celebrated by Protestant loyalists;
  • deserved: merited;
  • promised: indicated as a possible outcome

Reduced to silence, the pilgrim pictures ancient retrieved weaponry (hoard of black basalt axe heads) ostensibly benign (smooth as a beetle’s back) but superseded first by the arrival of gunpowder (cairn of stone force that might detonate) and later refinements …improvised bombs, nests of grenades (eggs of danger).

Delaney’s gift (plaster cast of an abbess) of a gentle figure (mild-mouthed cowled character of grace) was a source of spiritual comfort (candle in our house).

Turning to look the ghost in the eye comes too late – Delaney has been replaced by an exhausted (hunkering), injured bleeding, frightened (pale-faced) barely recognizable figure (plastered in mud), the ghost of his second cousin Colum McCartney, a 1975 sectarian murder victim with an axe to grind.

What he has to say cuts Heaney to the quick: why were you partying (with poets), he asks, at the Kilkenny Arts Week at the moment my blood was spilt … amidst Jerford’s pathetic fallacy (red-hot pokers blazed a lovely red)?

Why did you prefer staying where you were rather than sharing flesh and blood solidarity as his body was recovered (carted to Bellaghy from the Fews), leaving it to other family to cope (agitation at the news)?

  • basalt: a very hard stone akin to granite;
  • hoard: cache, collection
  • beetle: large order crawling and flying insect
  • cairn: mound, landmark of rough stone;
  • plaster cast: gauze and plaster of Paris covering that hardens and can be removed to reveal the original shape then filled to produce a facsimile for example statue or death-mask
  • abbess: female abbot;
  • Gowran master: the sculptor’s specific identity is not revealed; the church of this historical Kilkenny village (associated with a siege by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1650) contains noteworthy statuary and carvings;
  • cowled: of a cleric ‘hooded’;
  • plastered: coated so thickly that features become unrecognisable;
  • Colum McCartney: Heaney’s second cousin was murdered by Loyalist paramilitaries in 1975; at that very moment Heaney was organising a Kilkenny Arts Week event with distinguished participants;
  • hunkering: uncertain Scottish origin, ‘squatting’, ‘crouching’; compare ‘haunches’;
  • red-hot poker: blood-coloured plant with tall, erect spikes
  • flesh and blood: family members;
  • cart: convey in a rough and ready way;
  • Jerpoint: An outstanding Cistercian abbey founded in the second half of the 12th century.
  • Bellaghy: a village with very close associations to Heaney’s childhood home-ground and where after his death in September 2013 the poet himself would be laid to rest;
  • the Fews: a medieval barony in South Armagh bordering Eire, marked by its forests; the area where Colum McCartney met his death;
  • agitation: perturbation, disquiet;

Heaney attempts to defend his position: for Colum’s Bellaghy family and community it was crisis first hand live sectarian assassination; from afar he was stunned (dumb) by yet another example of Ulster’s repeated fate (encountering what was destined).

He could only express his feelings in The Strand at Lough Beg … Colum’s absence (the strand empty at daybreak)  had drained him (I felt like the bottom of a dried-up lake) and his poetry spoke for him.

McCartney is relentless in his reproof: you got it wrong, he says, pleading ‘poetry’ is a get-out, an avoidance of the violent truth (whitewashed ugliness), a cover-up called artistic tact … you do not mention or condemn the sectarian assassin (protestant who shot me through the head) so you carry an indirect guilt and this just the place for you to say ‘sorry’ (atone).

McCartney disrespects the poem for its lyrical Dantean epigraph (lovely blinds of the Purgatorio) and its wallowing in sweetened euphemism (saccharined my death with morning dew). He fires his shots and departs.

The Heaney-pilgrim comes to, as if from a dream, amongst pilgrim strangers he is equally no closer to.

  • first-hand:
  • happen in:
  • dumb: reduced to silence;
  • destined: the likely outcome of paramilitary activity;
  • second cousin:
  • Lough Beg: a small freshwater lake north of Lough Neagh and east of Bellaghy, part of the general area of Heaney’s upbringing and setting for his 1979 elegy in memory of McCartney;
  • whitewashed: the white, lime-based liquid covering used for wall surfaces was subsequently used figuratively to suggest ‘concealment’, ‘cover-up’;
  • Purgatorio: Italian form of Purgatory; title of a Dante work;
  • saccharined: a man-made sugar substitute, used metaphorically as ‘oversweet’, ‘falsely sweet’;
  • two ghosts whose challenges provoke self-rebuke: Tom Delaney and Colum McCartney; the latter is the most unrelenting in his criticism of all the ghosts;
  • Heaney’s responses to issues surrounding the McCartney incident are recorded in DOD (p220): Colum was a distant relative not personally known to me; Heaney was represented by family at the wake; he admits that Colum’s presence and rôle in the poem however locate his personal feelings as somewhere between guilt and unease;
  • Heaney concedes that the dramatic dialogue was there to explore the whole idea of public poetry, that the‘creative’ and the ‘responsible’ are under interrogation. In the wider Irish context he suggests that he and Colum had been born into the same quietist, fatalistic tribe (ibid p222);
  • accusations that Heaney had sometimes softened cruelty and sentimentalised brutal events were not new. The comment questions the validity and effectiveness of offering a lyric riposte to violence MP(p200);
  • Colum McCartney utters the most unrelenting accusation in the sequence ( ) reproving the poet NC (p116);
  • Like Aeneas or Odysseus in the underworld, Heaney also meets fallen warriors. Most dramatically, he again encounters his assassinated cousin, already memorialized in the pastoral elegy, “The Strand at Lough Beg” (published in Field Work). Here Colum, the (second) cousin, the voice of accusation in Heaney’s own mind, accuses Heaney of having “saccharined my death with morning dew”. The poet repents, dreams up (in canto IX) the image of an old brass trumpet (poetry?). Heaney, angered by his own hesitancy of word and deed, turns it around once again turns it back on his psychic pilgrimage for the remission of sins Shaun O’Connellin the February 1985 issue of Boston Review:
  • MP feels that canto VIII exposes the poet’s inadequacy in the face of death (p200):
  • In cantos VII, VIII and IX four dead men leave Heaney at his most exposed … each of them forces him to live their final moments, to scrutinise his conduct in the face of their deaths; exposure will lead Heaney via lame excuse through accusation , self-accusation to self-disgust and might be said to bea critical requirement of the pilgrimage which is to ‘chastise one’s own soul (MP p198);
  • nearly eighty lines of poetry built into 7 sections (S) of irregular length; a 38 sentence construct;
  • line length based upon 9/ 10 syllables; the single line exception points the finger of guilt;
  • following early free verse a clear rhyme pattern emerges, largely couplet based; variable sentence length, the interweaving of punctuated and enjambed phrases and later dialogue in imagined direct speech produce varying currents of flow and rhythm also affected by the emotions expressed;
  • S1 begins with a simple antithesis based on monochrome; bird and man both struggling against the elements; possessive pronoun hints at closeness; historical comparisons intrinsically Irish: rebel and academic; oxymoron: ‘straight-lipped smile’; comparison suggests pathetic fallacy: nature reflecting physical pain;
  • S2 is a monologue addressed to the ghost; comparison of stars and heartbeats; contrast between emotion and medical technology; vocabulary of empty failure, guilt and regretted severance;
  • S3 uses multiple compound phrases; description of religious archaeology, the thanklessness of the job and the ‘dirty’ history that is revealed; it ends with a cri-de-coeur;
  • S4 creates emotional associations including a gift that has outlived the giver; cinematic technique melts one scene into the next, a calm individual replaced by an aggressive ghost twisting the knife of guilt; dialogue reflects the actual historical events;
  • in S5 the poet sets out his defence and refers to what he feels proves he was not indifferent;
  • in S6 his appeal is rejected in language reflecting contemporary media sound-bites: ‘evasion’, ‘whitewashed’, ‘saccharined’ in the words of an untutored rebel who can refer to Dante!
  • the final triplet affords the relief of blessed anonymity;
  • the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhyme , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • Analysis of Heaney’s poems reveals how deliberately he seeks alliterative effects that allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify his assonant melodies. Heaney deliberately deploys pairs or clusters of like consonants; these come and go as the poem develops, entering the sound narrative, dropping out or reappearing at interval; he rings the changes. The simplified phonetic table that follows will facilitate your own analysis. Consonant sounds are formed in various parts of the mouth; most of them come in pairs (and Heaney will often deploy both in combination in the same phrase or sentence or stanza): a voiceless version and a voiced version; for example [p] and [b] are identically formed but [b] requires input from the vocal chords whereas [p] is simply air modified by the lips.
  • Front-of-mouth sounds and their phonetic symbols:

voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]

  • Behind-the-teeth sounds:

voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match[tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet

  • Rear-of-mouth sounds:

voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.

Sound it out for yourself and witness Heaney’s intricate sonic draughtsmanship.

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